Kalmah could be a fine case study for some poor grad student’s research into band development. Finland’s favorite sons grew up overnight, discovering their unique and — dare I say — iconic sound as young whipper-snappers. They caught the thicket of mid-period lows underfoot and freed themselves through personal evolution, not brute strength. They retooled into an incredibly consistent act not wholly unlike their early days, but not overtly similar either. It’s been nearly five years since Kalmah last stomped the swamp, and Palo would be more a shock if it wasn’t the beautiful bog beast we all expected. Fortunately, it absolutely is.
“Blood Ran Cold” at once is everything Kalmah was and everything Kalmah has become. Gone are the flimsy keyboard leads of years past; the firm axes of Kokko and Kokko object to any of that silly shit. Veli-Matti Kananen’s keys lend to the mellowed stance, obeying the same “texture first, tandem leads second, noodly power BS never” mantra that has only grown stronger in the last decade. Instead, the guitar-led melodies are the hallmark of Kalmah at their most consistent: guaranteed to excite, but not always impress. External influences sound more upfront than ever. The isolated optimism of Finland’s actual favorite sons Omnium Gatherum forge through the perpetually undulating storm clouds of Finland’s mostest bestest favorite sons Amorphis. Meanwhile, Finland’s actually for real this time favorite sons Children of Bodom1 contribute in spirit (more than usual) to the knuckle-headed chugs and horror movie synth on “Evil Kin.” The verse riffs are as simple and plain as they come, but its chorus swash buckles through power metal tropes to somehow manage earwvrm status.
Like every Kalmah record old and new, Palo features several tracks where the hooks lay waste to everything around them, most notably on “Waiting in the Wings” and “Through the Shallow Waters.” The former features a matured ability to write a fucking riff and grips the soul with the best tandem axe-key solo in years. The latter is such a classic example of Kalmah as the undisputed melody masters that I dare you to not to shed a tear while air-riffing. Those moments evoke an energy and an execution that transport you a decade into the past well before “Water’s” nostalgiacore keyboard interlude. Under those lofty heights, the undisputed successes and the conflicted runners-up, you’re left with a band tethered to diminishing returns. Riffs that worked once might not work thrice, ideas that worked last time don’t exactly fit here, and where the younger band might killer some of that filler, old band Kalmah is cool just letting it ride.
The record’s lowest points still merit a spin, but like “Evil Kin,” they are relics of a sound that did not make the transition to modernity with the same grace as the stronger tracks. “Into the Black Marsh” and “Erase and Diverge” are the old guard, solid material that could easily shame pretenders to the throne but serve only as filler for a band of Kalmah‘s caliber. Their experimental takes straddle this line as well. “Take Me Away” meshes soulful ballad and crushing melodeath surprisingly well, but “The Stalker” never finds its footing and ends the album on a low note. Palo relies on an obvious big label production with all of the benefits and drawbacks that entails — excellent tones but a nasty habit of getting in your face whenever possible.2 When “World of Rage” spotlights a guitar-key dual charge and all instruments are present and accounted for, it’s hard listening indeed.
Palo isn’t the slam dunk competition-crusher I’d hoped it would be, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. Boisterous hooks and some of the Kokkos’ best leads of the decade make it one of the easiest listens in Kalmah‘s catalog. I’ve had no trouble looping it, regardless of its lesser stock. I will admit though, initial spins left me unnerved. This has always been a band that gets name-dropped, not a band that needs name drops. But on closer inspection, there’s nothing to fear. When you tie this monster down and yank its mask off, it’s still good ole Kalmah: gripping, triumphant, and a metric fuckton of fun. What more can you ask for?